Women's Museum of Ireland

Mary Robinson

President & human rights activist

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The significance of Mary Robinson’s election as President of Ireland in 1990 is encapsulated best in an anecdote told to her by her driver, one she fondly recalls in her memoirs. On being asked to serve the tea, a woman responded to her husband: “Make your own tea, things have changed around here!” That sentence was not an understatement. With a career spanning law, politics and diplomacy over decades and across the globe, Robinson’s electoral success was the springboard to a lifetime devoted to being a voice for the vulnerable, both in Ireland and worldwide.

Born Mary Teresa Winifred Bourke in Ballina, County Mayo on May 21 1944, the daughter of doctors, Robinson once attributed her interest in human rights to being “wedged between four brothers”. A convent school education preceded finishing school in Paris, a law degree in Trinity College Dublin and a master’s in Harvard. Robinson was appointed auditor of the Law Society in Dublin in 1967 and her controversial inaugural address set the tone for her future career, which would see her upset authority figures from Charles Haughey to George Bush. In taking on contraception, gay rights, abortion, women’s rights, children’s rights, Robinson was ahead of her time in more ways than one.

Mary Robinson was appointed Reid Professor of penal legislation, constitutional and criminal law, and the law of evidence, and followed this with a stint as lecturer in European Community law, subsequently establishing the Irish Centre for European Law. She was the youngest law professor appointed in Trinity College Dublin. Robinson was an ardent supporter of human rights, and was elected, in the 1980s to the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva, as well as to the Royal Irish Academy. Although she represented Trinity College in the Seanad for 20 years, Robinson resigned as the Labour Party whip due to a disagreement over the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. She was a member of Dublin City Council from 1979 – 1983, standing, during the same period, for parliamentary seats, only for her to fail to get elected on two consecutive occasions. Such setbacks did not stand in her way, and in 1990, Mary Robinson elected Ireland’s first female president, raising the profile of the office to a prominence previously unseen. Developing a reputation as a moral voice, Robinson’s legacy includes a lamp lit in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin as a gesture to the widely scattered Irish diaspora. In the global realm, she travelled to Somalia in 1992 and Rwanda in 1994 in an effort draw attention to wider humanitarian issues. Her historic visit to London to meet Queen Elizabeth was the first meeting between the two heads of state. She also worked hard to promote a more modern image of Ireland during her tenure.

Robinson followed her term of presidential office by serving as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 – 2003. In this role, she widened the commission’s brief to include many women’s issues, such as food and water security, shelter and healthcare. Robinson was determined to place greater focus on promoting human rights at a domestic and regional level, and made an official visit to China – a move unprecedented for UNHCHR. While in this role, she was elected Chancellor of her alma mater, Trinity College.

Since leaving that position, Robinson has joined the Elders, a group of 12 eminent leaders acting as global advisors under the direction of Archbishop Desmond Tutu that includes Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan, among others. She has also established the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice. Other notable accolades include Honorary President of Oxfam International, Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honour bestowed by the United States.

Elly Friel